Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Stanley Kubrick: Retrospective and Happy Birthday!

Today would be the 83rd birthday of the reclusive director Stanely Kubrick, had he not passed away twelve years ago. Stanley Kubrick was a fantastically talented and influential director, although one who I'll admit I liked a lot more when I was a younger man, and find somewhat cold and unengaging when viewed from an adult perspective. However, the man was a genius and I do love or at least respect many of his films, so I figured I would take the opportunity of the man's birthday to do a complete retrospective of his film career.

Let's get right to it... in chronological order:

Fear and Desire (1953) / Killer's Kiss (1955)
Never saw either of these, but I don't feel too bad about it because chances are good neither have you. Anybody who's seen these feel like chiming in?

The Killing (1956)
This one actually had a real theatrical release and is easy to find on DVD, so I've seen it, although it's still a weak effort from a director who went on to bigger and better things. This is a mostly entertaining heist film from a visually talented director with a lot of ideas, but as a story it just never comes together in a satisfying way. Also, it's boring. It's maybe worth checking out if you are a fan of the man's work, or if you just want to see a good performance from the always good Sterling Hayden. But, really, if those two things are want you want, just see Dr. Strangelove instead, but we'll get to that one soon enough.

Paths of Glory (1957)
Kubrick's first and best war epic is a brilliant tale about a squad of French soldiers tried for cowardice during WWI. The story is a bit heavy-handed and I think the ending is incredibly anti-climactic (a common theme among the man's films in my opinion), but boy is it stirring and compulsively watchable. The footage of the trench warfare is amazing, especially considering what Kubrick pulled off in 1957, and the lead role by Kirk Douglas is phenomenal.

Spartacus (1960)
I think people tend to forget that this was a Kubrick film, since it seems like anything but. I don't know much about the production of the film, but I'd imagine that Kubrick was little more than a director for hire at the will of the Hollywood studio system. Certainly, this film feels more like a by-the-numbers studio picture than anything else the man has done, which makes is very entertaining and conventional, but not as unique or fascinating as the rest of his work. Still... it's entertaining, and features another great, iconic performance from Kirk Douglas. But this isn't one of Kubrick's best.

Lolita (1962)
When Kubrick started production on this adaptation of the controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov, most people thought it would be unfilmable... and most people were right. Lolita is one of those novels that works not only because it's an interesting story, but because the prose by Nabokov is so wonderful, sublime, and indelible. Kubrick's attempt at a film version is certainly entertaining and a brave effort, but it falls flat because it lack's the wit and charm of the film, and also because of the censorship restrictions at the time making it nearly impossible to show any real chemistry between the older man and his underage paramour.

Still... it's a funny movie that's worth checking out for the lead performances by James Mason and Peter Sellers. This marked the first time Kubrick and Sellers worked together in a major film, and the chemistry between the actor and the director who gave him nearly free reign is great fun to watch.

Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
This is Kubrick's first (and perhaps only) perfect film, in my opinion. Finally Kubrick managed to direct a film where everything came together perfectly, from the hilarious script to his brilliant camera work to the over the top performances from an amazing collection of character actors. I'm not sure if the humor and paranoia about the cold war can really stand the test of time among modern audiences, but funny is funny, and this film is about as funny as anything I've ever seen. I have nothing bad to say about this movie, other than that I now wish I was watching it instead of writing about it.

This was the second collaboration between Kubrick and both Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers, both of whom were at their career bests here. This was also the first time Kubrick received attention from the Academy Awards, earning nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture, most of which he lost to My Fair Lady. I'm sure the Academy has some regrets about that one.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
This is one of those movies that tends to divide people into two camps that either love it or hate it. Personally, I'm firmly standing on the middle of the line, since I love much of it and hate most of it. I shouldn't say I hate it, since there is a lot to respect about even the parts I don't like, but I will say that I hate watching it, since it's cold, unengaging, and just plain boring. However, it's clever and has some outstanding sequences that are deservedly iconic.

I just don't like it, however, despite the exceptional score, amazing special effects that still look every bit as special now as they did in 1968, and neat set pieces. It just doesn't have a story that I care about at all, even if I did understand everything that was going on. As a visual study of life in space, this film is beyond compare, but as an actual story with characters, an overall theme, or any kind of human interest, it falls flat. This is one of those movies that I respect and understand that people like, but I never need to watch it again.

Kubrick won his first Academy Award here, for best special effects. He was also nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay, along with co-author and Science Fiction Grand Master Arthur C. Clarke.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Like 2001, this was another Kubrick film that I loved when I was younger but hate now. Again, I respect the craft involved, especially the visual designed and the outstanding lead performance by Malcom McDowell, but I just don't like it at all. I'm not one of those people who thinks it glorifies violence or rape or murder, but I certainly don't need to sit through a film that is positively filled to the brim with all of those things.

This is a very well crafted and put together film that I nevertheless find somewhat repulsive and off-putting. In my opinion, it's just a bad film that was based on a bad book. But, again, people love it, especially the Academy who again nominated Kubrick for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. Luckily those Oscars all went to The French Connection. I don't think the Academy has any regrets about that.

Barry Lyndon (1975)
Now here's where things get weird. After a long string of commercial and critical hits, nobody liked this one or went to see it... except for me. Strange as it sounds, this is my absolute favorite of Kubrick's films and one of my all time favorite movies in general. It's just a great story that was brilliantly told. Sure, the lead performance by Ryan O'Neil isn't up there with Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, but the film is so gorgeous and the story so engaging that nobody really cares.

Based on the picaresque novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, this details the story about an 18th century Irish commoner as he makes his way up in among the social classes at the time. Doesn't that sound amazing?! Well, it kind of is. Again, Kubrick was nominated for the main three film Oscars, but he lost out to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Fair enough, but I much prefer Barry Lyndon.

The Shining (1980)
This is the scariest movie ever made, but not all together the best movie ever made. The story pales in comparison to the original novel be Stephen King, ejecting all of the character development and real story details in favor of shallow visual spectacle. Again, all of that works great if you just want to scare people or make them laugh, but as a story it falls flat. But boy is it entertaining as hell.

Really fun horror movie, but needless to say it didn't get any Oscar nominations, breaking Kubrick's perfect five-year streak.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)
After a seven year break from making films (or maybe it just took him that long to finish this one), Kubrick returns with another big war epic, only it's not nearly as good as Paths of Glory. People are really going to hate me for saying this, but Full Metal Jacket may be the most overrated film of all time, or least it should make the top ten. 

Full Metal Jacket is actually two films: One that's not bad and another that's not good. The opening sequence detailing the basic training of the soldiers destined to go on to fight in Vietnam is ridiculously over the top, engaging, and entertaining as hell. This was the film that made R. Lee Ermy into a star. He was so good and so iconic as the drill instructor from hell that he went on to make a career out of playing that same character in countless other films and TV shows. He's always awesome, but he's never been better than he was here in his first acting role. In fact, according to legend, he was hired on just as a consultant since he was a real drill instructor, but Kubrick was so taken by him that he just gave him the actual role in the film. Oh, and Vincent D'Onofrio was also great too.

After the opening sequence, things take a turn for the worse. After the exceptional opening segment, the film continues and we learn that the star is actually... Mathew Modine? Uh... thanks, but no thanks. I have nothing against Mathew Modine since he's a very talented actor, but after spending forty minutes or whatever with Ermy and D'Onofrio, I frankly forgot that Modine was even in this movie. Suddenly I'm supposed to care about his exploits in Vietnam? It doesn't help much that he's an unlikable character whose storyarc never amounts to much or goes anywhere.

So I say check out this movie but don't expect much beyond the first half. Kubrick was nominated for the Oscar for Best Screenplay, marking the last nomination of his career.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
When I typed in the above title, I accidentally wrote "Eyes Wide Shit," and I considered keeping it because the typo pretty much summed up my feelings about this movie. Shit is a bit too harsh since it's a lovely, somewhat entertaining film, but boy is it not for me. I saw it once in the theaters and have tried to watch it again since, but I never make it through because it's boring and details the exploits of a bunch of awful, unlikable losers.

I know that lots of people really like this movie, however, since I know a few of them. Maybe they will chime in to comment about why they love it so much. Personally, I'm not a fan, although the orgy scene was pretty entertaining and well filmed, and Tom Cruise gave a pretty good performance, even though his character never did more than stand around watching other people do stuff.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Do I have to talk about this movie? Even the title of this movie is stupid and needlessly redundant. Legend goes that this was based on a story idea by Kubrick, who died before he could finish it so Spielberg stepped in to direct. It's hard to say if this would've been good had Kubrick been able to finish it, but I tend to doubt it since there is really nothing of value at all in my opinion. All things considered, I think Spielberg is a better director than Stanley Kubrick (that's right!), and even he couldn't make anything work with this mess of a story premise.

Skip it.


capt.naps said...

I liked 2001. But its pretty inaccurate, none of that stuff happened

Justin Garrett Blum said...

I tend to agree with you on a lot of these, with a couple of exceptions. One being Eyes Wide Shut, of course, since you know I love that film. The other being Barry Lyndon, which was pretty freaking boring in my opinion. I can't remember much about it.

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sounds and shapes said...

i just recently watched kubrick's filmography, thought i haven't gotten through his last two yet. i started with killer's kiss, it's really good for a short and simple '50s drama, though if you didn't like the killing it might not be up your alley. i'd say the story is better, though i prefer the killing for its presentation, and influence on tarantino.

i read he destroyed the tapes of fear and desire, can't blame him, judging by the budget i bet it sucked and by now is completely unwatchable, due to low file quality, etc... disregard that one.

as for 2001... i think for the actual 'story' you have to read the book. the movie is really only good if you're down with classical. or stoned.

i do agree with you on barry lyndon, though i wouldn't say it's my favorite, i do need to give it another watch. the soundtrack is great, got me back into classical (i'm obsessed with schubert now because of that scene when barry first woos lady lyndon), and i was blown away when i read he filmed some scenes entirely by candlelight... crazy!